Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trial of Jesus Christ and The Last Supper

John's Story

We come to the last, and in many ways the most informative of the Gospels:   The Gospel According to John, Chapter 18, verses 3-38; Chapter 6, verses 1-16.  While Johns Gospel is considered the most philosophical of the four, its account of the arrest and trial of Jesus is surprisingly rich in detail.  As one would expect, in general, it follows the description found in Mark, Luke, and Matthew, but a number of details are added, producing a very detailed narrative.

Last Supper close-up
Last Supper close-up

Judas is not described as betraying Jesus with a kiss, but he is described as leading the detachment of soldiers under the command of the High Priests.   It is Simon Peter who draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priests servant, and the servant is identified as Malchus.  There is no mention of Jesus healing of Malchuss ear, but rather he tells Peter to sheathe his sword.   He adds, This is the cup the Father has given me; shall I not drink it?

Unlike the other Gospels, Jesus is taken first not to Caiaphas, but to the High Priests father-in-law, Annas.   Annas questions Jesus about his teaching and his disciples.  Jesus replies to the questions by pointing out   that he taught openly to all who would listen to him in the temples and synagogues.  If Annas would like to know what he taught, Jesus suggests that Annas ask his hearers.  At this point, one of the soldiers strikes Jesus, who responds with the words, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, but if well, why smitest thou me?  Annas ends this interview by sending Jesus, bound, to his son-in-law, Caiaphas.

It is during the period from Jesus arrest to his transport to Caiaphas that Peter denies Jesus three times before the crowing of the cock.

John does not describe the interrogation by Caiaphas, but, in the early morning, Caiaphas leads him to Pilate.   An interesting sidebar is that the Jews stay outside of Pilates headquarters, so that they can eat their Passover meal without defilement.  This requires that Pilate must go out to them.  Pilate asks, What accusation bring ye against this man?  Evidently, the Jews are struck by the obviousness of the situation, and respond, as if Pilate were simple-minded, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee.

Pilate, as with all good bureaucrats, tells the Jews to take him away and judge him according to Jewish law.   The Jews remind Pilate it is not lawful for us to put any man to death.  John prophetically adds, That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die, that is, the mention of capital punishment ensures that Jesus own prediction is about to come true.

Pilate takes Jesus indoors to his quarters, and the question Are you the King of the Jews? as with the other Gospels, is put to Jesus.   There is more detail in this interview than in the other accounts, and there seems to be almost a cat-and-mouse game between Pilate and Jesus.  Jesus speaks of his purpose, which is to bear witness to the truth, to which Pilate, in the best Socratic tradition, responds with, What is truth?  The question is obviously rhetorical, since Pilate takes Jesus out to the Jews and tells them I find in him no fault at all. Again, Pilate makes a political decision.  He will observe a Passover custom, if the Jews wish, and release a prisoner.  They respond with cries for the release of Barabbas, described by John as simply a robber.

Note that throughout this account, John refers to the multitude and the High Priests as simply the Jews.   The accusers are clearly identified as Jews, and not as a simple mob.

Pilate has Jesus flogged, and the soldiers crown him with thorns and robe him in a purple cloak, the symbol of royalty.   Repeatedly, they strike him and cry out mockingly, Hail, King of the Jews!  Pilate brings Jesus before the Jews, still maintaining that he can find no case against Jesus.  Nevertheless, the flogging and the humiliation are not enough for the Jews, who cry out Crucify! Crucify!

Crown of Thorns by H. Bosch
Crown of Thorns by H. Bosch
John now says that Pilate was more afraid than ever.   He takes Jesus back inside, asks him why he will not speak with him, and reminds him that he, Pilate, has the power to either release him or crucify him.  Jesus reminds Pilate that he would have no power at all except it were given thee from above.  Clearly, Pilate is trying to find a justification for releasing Jesus, but the clamor is too great.  John has the Jews shouting, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesars friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.  This is too much for Pilate, and he hands Jesus over to be crucified.

At the very least, the four Gospel narratives have all used a common source.   The differences between them are in details that could have come from oral tradition, or from additional sources about which we know nothing.  As for the question:  Are they accurate history? we can only say that, for their time in history, they show enough consistency to be more than simply a repeated myth.  One would accept the broad outline of the events, and quibble with the fact that the details are may be hearsay.

Did the trial of Jesus happen?   Most likely.  Did it happen as described in the four Gospels?  That is a more difficult question to answer.  There are consistencies that suggest that the story occurred as described.  Yet, one is faced with the possibility that the trial of Jesus is one story, told four times, that is, that all of the Gospels after Mark are based on his account.  Could it be that the Gospels of Luke, Matthew, and John are reinterpretations of Mark, with another common source added to provide additional details?  If there is a possibility that Mark was alive at the time of Jesus trial and crucifixion, then it would not matter.  The primary source upon which all the Gospels are based would be from a reliable eyewitness.

Even if the writers of the four Gospels borrowed from each other, or used one or more common sources that we have not discovered, it is clear that there is a coherent story about Jesus trial to justify our conclusion that it really happened.   Some details that differ from Gospel to Gospel suggest that after Mark had written his, certain inclusions give a convincing reality to the accounts.  For instance, John adds specific names, and describes the leading participants with distinctive personalities.  The debate between Pilate and Jesus is impressively done, and the two figures emerge in his Gospel as, on the one hand, bemused and a bit flustered (Pilate), and on the other, serene and thoughtful (Jesus).

However, it is clear (according to Grant and others) that the Gospel writers were careful to make their accounts consistent with the prophecies of the Old Testament.   One interpretation of this is to conclude that only the basic outline of the story is true, and the details have been added in order to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament.  One could argue that even if the trial and crucifixion of Jesus did take place, many of the details could have been made up.

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